Bullying or Joking Around?

Today my wife went to The Warren Center to attend a presentation on bullying and special needs children. The presenter suggested that we encourage Daniel to engage in self-advocacy, that we perhaps should have his teacher discuss with the class the fact that Daniel has autism and what that means–if Daniel agreed to it (which he has), and that we role-play certain scenarios.

We decided to try a role-playing scenario. Anna pretended to be a mean girl insulting our daughter, Melina; then, I pretended to be Melina’s friend just joking around.

Anna: Oh, hi, Melina. Wearing those glasses you look like a real nerd.

Me: Was that mean, or just joking around?

Daniel: It was mean.

So far, so good. I then went.

Me, in a playful voice: Hey, nerd! What’s up?

Anna: Was that mean, or just joking around?

Daniel: It was mean.

There’s little question that anyone not autistic would have very easily picked up that I was joking. If you’re an autistic adult, you would probably even pick up on it from the umpteen times you’ve seen people interacting just that way and having a laugh about it. But Daniel just turned 9, and he’s still learning.

The problem is that we cannot trust Daniel’s judgment on whether or not he’s being bullied. He’s saying his friends are being mean to him, but it’s not impossible that his friends (assuming for a minute he’s making the right judgment that they are in fact his friends) are just joking around with him and he’s misunderstanding the social situation. He also wants to be loyal to his friends, so he is loathe to mention anything negative about them. He doesn’t want to lose the friends he has, regardless of how they may (or may not) be treating him.

Hopefully, if and when his classmates are given the presentation about Daniel’s autism that the bullying will stop. We’ll probably have to have them address the issue of Daniel’s difficulty understanding playful banter among friends, where you insult each other to show camaraderie, precisely because Daniel doesn’t understand it and may be mistaking it for being mean.

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Oxytocin and Autism II

Oxytocin is an important neurotransmitter, and one which has been implicated in autistic behaviors. Known as the “love hormone,” there’s a lot more to it than that. According to Psychology Today,

It regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction, playing a role in behaviors from maternal-infant bonding and milk release to empathy, generosity, and orgasm. When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin levels increase; hence, oxytocin is often called “the love hormone.” In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in all pair bonding. The hormone is greatly stimulated during sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Oxytocin is the hormone that underlies trust. It is also an antidote to depressive feelings.

As I have noted before, oxytocin has a dark side, meaning low levels of oxytocin not only reduce one’s desires for social interaction, but also reduces the tendency to engage in “groupthink,” the worst versions of which are racism and sexism. To the extent that autistics don’t engage in in-group/out-group thinking, we have a general tendency to not engage in racism and sexism.

However, do note many of the behaviors noted above. I suspect that it’s not just any empathy that’s affected by lower levels of oxytocin, but the specific kind autistics have problems with. Coincidentally, the kind of empathy we autistics have problems with is the same empathy that actually makes people favor their in-groups over out-groups and thus can make people behave in racist and less moral ways.

Also note that oxytocin is as much the sex molecule as the love molecule. I have read that many autistics have little to no interest in sex. While that’s certainly not universal (I’m sure other hormones, etc. are involved and affect sex drive as well), it seems to be much more common among autistics than neurotypicals. Low levels of oxytocin would explain this phenomenon. Ironically, since having sex increases oxytocin levels, those who lack interest in sex due to low oxytocin levels are behaving in such a way as to maintain low oxytocin levels.

The connection to trust is a bit odd to me, as I find autistics to be generally quite trusting. However, it may make sense if trust is tied to in-group members, and distrust to out-group members. Without that distinction, it may be that we are simply more trusting of out-group members, and thus we seem more trusting overall.

Here is an interesting overview of the research to day on the connection between oxytocin and autism. I have also written about the connection between touch and increasing oxytocin levels in a post titled Hugs Help.

Nancy MacLean Update

The student newspaper at Duke University, The Chronicle, has taken up the issue of Duke historian Nancy MacLean’s anti-autism comments I first raised. To date they have run three articles on it:

Professor Nancy MacLean claims founders of libertarianism seem to be on the ‘autism spectrum

Shame on Nancy MacLean

Duke Hypocrisy

The first and last do have a political bent to them, but the middle one is by the editorial board of The Chronicle.

None of the posts mention this blog which, to the best of my knowledge, originated the story. Certainly the first mainstream media outlet to discuss her comments, Reason, cites my blog. While the big blowup occurred among conservative and libertarian outlets, a leftist response at Merion West did pop up several days later. While they seem more interested in pointing out conservative hypocrisy on the issue, they do condemn MacLean’s statement.

While I previously discussed the degree to which she was incorrect about autistics having low empathy, I haven’t discussed at length her claim that we do not feel solidarity.

I am sure that what MacLean means by “solidarity” is something along the lines of fellow-feeling for some sort of group. If that’s what she means, then she’s right: we probably don’t feel that very strongly. As a result, we have a tendency not to be racists, sexists, homophobes, nationalists, etc. (Which doesn’t mean an autistic person raised in a racist environment won’t turn out racist–but I would argue they would be less likely to do so and be more prone to becoming less racist over time precisely because we have a more egalitarian outlook on the world and thus feel less solidarity.)

On the other hand, we autistics also tend to be very loyal. We are loyal to our spouses, to our friends, and to the places where we work. Personally, I would rather be loyal than to feel the kind of solidarity that underlies racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and other kinds of groupthink. If Nancy MacLean wishes to condemn that as a weakness, that says more about her character than it does about those she criticizes and denigrates.

And, no, she still hasn’t make a public apology for what she said.

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Update: The Wall Street Journal has a piece on Nancy MacLean’s anti-autism comments.

Also, Pacific Standard has a piece on it that cites me. She apparently made an apology to the author of the piece in a private email to him.